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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

October 1, 1993

Air Date: October 1, 1993


The Blob in Lake Superior / Fred Jones

Fred Jones of Canadian radio station CBQ reports from Thunder Bay, Ontario on a huge chemical blob that lurks below the surface of Lake Superior. For years, chemicals used to treat lumber have been slowly dripping into Thunder Bay's harbor, settling to the bottom and creating a "hot spot" — a highly toxic area the size of two football fields. Local observers say the failure to clean up the Blob reflects the political and scientific difficulties surrounding the health of the entire lake. (06:58)

Poisoned Fish, Polluting Smelters, and Worried Workers / Dick Brooks

Producer Dick Brooks reports from the southern shores of Lake Superior on the controversial Copper Range mine and smelter. The company is the largest private employer on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, but it’s also the largest emitter of toxic heavy metals in the Lake Superior basin. Local Indians say Copper Range is a big part of the reason they can't eat fish from the lake. The company has been sued for clean air violations by the EPA, the states of Michigan and Wisconsin and the National Wildlife Federation. (10:30)

The Zen Of Hawkwatching / David Catlin

Commentator David Catlin muses on the joys of watching the yearly hawk migration. Catlin says while some people don't consider it worth their while, actually seeing the hawks is only part of the pleasure of looking for them. (02:33)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1993 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or retransmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Don Gonyea, Doug Phillips, Wanda Levine, Dick Brooks, Fred Jones

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Lake Superior is the second largest body of fresh water in the world, and it's in trouble - toxic trouble. Lurking under the surface of Thunder Bay Harbor is a huge blob of poison, left over from 50 years of lumber processing.

HARTLEY: Toxic materials, and we're talking real toxic molecules, they will eventually enter into a variety of food chains, and the ultimate receiver of these food chains is you and I.

CURWOOD: And, a huge copper smelter near Lake Superior is also suspected of making the lake's fish unsafe to eat. The EPA wants relief for local native tribes.

SHELLY: The Ojibway here are fishing people. If we can't continue fishing and eating the fish, then we're not the same people.

CURWOOD: Also, watching hawks migrate, on Living on Earth. First, news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news.

Americans could be driving cars with three times today's average fuel efficiency within just ten years, if a newly-announced super-car collaboration between the Federal Government and the Big Three automakers succeeds. It's a goal that President Clinton called "as daunting as the effort to put a man on the moon." From Detroit, Don Gonyea outlines what engineers are up against.

GONYEA: Analysts say there are three basic areas that engineers will need to focus on if they are to achieve the kind of fuel efficiency improvements the President wants. First there's the weight of the car - vehicles today are much lighter than they used to be, but to get better mileage, cars will have to be lighter still, and much of the steel and metal now used will have to be replaced by strong composite materials. Experts say the auto industry will be able to benefit from research already done by the Defense Department. The second area is the fuel itself. Gasoline may be mixed with or replaced by some alternative fuel, and the way fuel is burned may be radically changed as well. Finally, the way the power is transferred from the car's engine to the wheels will also have to be re-thought. Nearly all engineers agree that to triple car mileage to 80 or 90 miles to the gallon will require technologies that have not even been dreamt up yet, but they now have the mandate - and the funding - to do that dreaming. For Living on Earth, I'm Don Gonyea in Detroit.

NUNLEY: A key part of the landmark agreement to help restore the Florida Everglades is in danger of collapse. The deal was announced this summer after years of haggling between farmers, environmentalists, the state of Florida and the Federal Government. But now negotiators can't agree on important details. The dispute centers on the placement of artificial marshes, which would filter polluted runoff from sugar plantations, and on how to pay for the project. If that part of the settlement has to go back to court, it could set the entire restoration program back years.

Florida has become the first state in the nation to tax certain items which haven't met the state's recycling goals. Doug Phillips reports from Miami.

PHILLIPS: The new one-cent fee is being charged for products sold in glass, plastic, and plastic-coated paper. Those containers were targeted because more than half of them end up in landfills instead of recycling bins. The estimated $20 million dollars a year raised by the fee will be used for environmental and recycling programs. Florida's beverage industry supports the advance-deposit fee, saying consumers faced with paying an extra penny for soda in bottles will switch to cans which are less expensive and recycled three times more often. Some environmentalists, however, prefer traditional "bottle bills," saying that consumers aren't likely to change their buying habits for the sake of saving a penny. For Living on Earth, I'm Doug Phillips in Miami.

NUNLEY: In the latest move in the battle over public lands, the House of Representatives has rejected a Senate-sponsored proposal to delay a three-fold hike in Federal grazing fees. The higher fees are part of an Administration plan to reform Federal lands policy, which has run into stiff opposition from Western Senators. The fate of the fee hikes now rests with a Senate-House conference committee.

This is Living on Earth.

Electric utilities may be forced to reconsider building some new nuclear or fossil-fueled power plants, following the settlement of a suit against Chicago's Commonwealth Edison. Consumer groups had charged that the utility didn't need three nuclear plants that went on-line in the late 1980's, and so shouldn't have been able to pass their costs on to customers. In settling the suit, Commonwealth agreed to refund $1.3 billion dollars and cut their rates by more than $300 million dollars a year.

The EPA is making good on its recent promise to get tough with industries which burn hazardous waste as fuel. The agency has announced nearly $20 million dollars in fines against the owners of 30 industrial boilers, furnaces and incinerators, for violations of Federal hazardous waste regulations. The largest fine was directed at the operator of a Missouri cement kiln cited for releases of toxic contaminants. EPA Administrator Carol Browner says violations of hazardous waste laws are "chronic".

In San Diego, a battle is brewing over pollution of the sky by streetlights. Two observatories say the city's decision to switch from yellow to white streetlights could interfere with their ability to scan the skies. Wanda Levine reports.

LEVINE: Although no research links the yellow lights and crime, city council members decided to brighten downtown and high-crime areas because of the perception that white lights are safer. But while some may feel safer, the change will increase light pollution - a problem for nearby astronomers. Dr. Robert Brucato is assistant director of Mount Palomar, the third largest observatory in the world.

BRUCATO: The kinds of research that we're doing in astronomy today require measurements of the faintest things that we can see - the most distant objects in the universe, and if the exposure times get intolerably long, we can't do that kind of science any more.

LEVINE: A task force will investigate ways to mitigate the change from yellow to white lights. Some ideas include shielding street lamps and putting other lights on timers. For Living on Earth, I'm Wanda Levine in San Diego.

NUNLEY: That's this week's environmental news. I'm Jan Nunley.

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(Theme music up and under)

The Blob in Lake Superior

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

Lake Superior is the second-largest body of fresh water in world, outranked only by Lake Baikal in Siberia; and like Baikal, Superior is in trouble. The biggest threat is toxic contamination, and its sources are numerous. The toxics come from local industry, from agriculture, and from remote parts of the world, carried on atmospheric currents and deposited by rain and snow. Two years ago the Federal governments of the US and Canada, and the four state and provincial governments bordering Lake Superior, agreed to combine their efforts to ensure tough compliance with environmental laws by all industry operating in the Lake Superior Basin. But much pollution still continues. Today we visit two lakefront regions - one in Canada and the other in the US - that are confronting the problems and promises of cleaning up the sources of contamination. The largest estuary on Lake Superior is Thunder Bay. For decades the city of Thunder Bay has thrived on its port traffic, much of it from the logging industry that's been so important to the region. But the wood products industry has also contributed to some serious problems. Just below the surface of the bay, a hot spot of toxic trouble has been literally brewing for almost half a century. Fred Jones of Radio Station CBQ in Thunder Bay has our story.

(Sound of foghorn)

JONES: The hot spot is called the Blob. It hovers below Lake Superior's surface, in front of a pier in Thunder Bay Harbor. The Blob is a horrible cocktail of creosote and such tongue-twisters as pentachlorophenol, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and PCB's - all this mixed together in dense and dangerous levels.

(Sound of sawmill)

JONES: This sawmill and preserving plant sits on the pier. It prepares lumber for markets in the United States and overseas. Workers here make railroad ties and the kind of wood we'd use to build a deck around the house. For 50 years, the soil on this pier has been saturated with the drippings of the highly toxic chemical mix used to preserve the wood. The size of this contaminated area is mind-boggling - 50,000 cubic meters, enough toxic muck to fill boxcars of a train more than one and a half miles long. And that's just what's on the land. For 50 years this cocktail has also oozed out into the water, and onto the harbor floor, to form the Blob. Bob Hartley is a biology teacher. He also works with the local remedial action plan. He's a long-time community conservationist. now looking at ways to clean up the soil and get rid of the Blob in the harbor floor.

HARTLEY: You have this pool of organic creosote, preservative-type material, with a variety of different, horrendous molecules that one would certainly not want to bathe in or drink unless you want to be instantly sick. It's much denser than water, and it's, thank goodness, fairly immiscible with water, it does not dissolve, mix with water. However, with a big ship close by and its propellers all awhirl and doing their job, these little things roll to the surface and appear for a short while and then settle back down to the bottom. So, one wants to stop, there's two aspects - you've got to stop the ongoing drip, you've got to contain it, and you've got to clean it.

JONES: The present mill operator, Northern Wood, is owned by Buchanan Forest Products. This firm, with a less-than-glowing environmental record, is the first group to actually take concrete measures to stop the toxic drip. Company official Tom Ingliss.

INGLISS: We put a dike around the penta cylinders, so that the drip, which is about 95 percent of what came on to the ground is now contained and recycled into the operation. The balance of five percent that went out onto the tracks is now being contained by putting felt down where the water runs through it and the oil will be retained on the top. So we feel now that we have or very shortly will have contained 100 percent of any contamination going into the soil.

JONES: So that leaves the contaminated soil under the factory, the continuing seepage into the lake, and the Blob still to be dealt with.

(Sound of underwater air bubbles from diving, fade under)

JONES: Take a dive beneath the surface of Lake Superior, right in front of the pier. Matthew Haringer did. He doesn't like to talk about it, but in 1986, he was hired to strap on his scuba gear, swim down, and explore how far this poisonous brew has spread. What Matthew found was an area of the harbor floor the size of two football fields, permeated with a toxic seepage. Later that day, when Matthew hung his diving suit up to dry, the neoprene stretched like melted mozzarella from contact with the Blob. Back here on the surface, passing boaters describe the water above the Blob. It sometimes looks like a gasoline slick, oily and rainbow-hued. It's an environmentalist's nightmare. Bob Hartley says the problem is unique - nowhere else have scientists found such a stew of chemicals beside a busy waterway.

HARTLEY: Organisms and fish do move through the area and that creates a problem, and wind action, wave action, prop action tends to disperse this over larger areas, and toxic materials, and we're talking real toxic molecules, they will eventually enter into a variety of food chains, if they haven't already, and the ultimate receiver of these food chains is you and I.

JONES: It's not as if this hot spot is newly discovered. The problem has been known for two decades. So why hasn't it been cleaned up? Well, a big reason must be a lack of political will - the will necessary to cut through a complicated maze of competing jurisdictions, to face the economic pressures to preserve hundreds of jobs and ever-changing government priorities. But also this pollution continues because scientists can't decide what cleanup method to use, and efforts made ten years ago to contain the problem failed. Now the continuing problem of seepage has become so scary that everyone involved has finally agreed to get moving. They want to worry later about who's going to pay the bill - a bill experts have estimated could be $3 to 5 million dollars - relatively cheap in the expensive world of environmental cleanup. But Bob Hartley says it's still a slow process.

HARTLEY: There is something we want to look at and do with the cooperation of the Northern Wood Preservatives company, and the owners of the property and the past operators of the property and come to a way of doing it that's going to make Northern Wood Preservatives a viable company still, and stop the ongoing problem and rectify what's already happened.

JONES: So there's been lots of study and lots of talk, but the pollution into the lake continues, and the Blob still hovers just below the surface of Thunder Bay Harbor. The latest Lake Superior cleanup initiative draws our attention to this kind of problem. There's much less willingness to continue the talking. Environmentalists around the lake are looking for action. Yet success demands a new political will to rid Lake Superior of hot spots like the Blob. I'm Fred Jones, at Thunder Bay.

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(Sound of gulls and foghorn, fade under)

Poisoned Fish, Polluting Smelters, and Worried Workers

CURWOOD: Toxic contamination in Lake Superior is getting into the food chain. Anyone who eats fish out of Lake Superior is taking a chance. And the more one eats, the greater the likelihood of poisoning. Native people, who rely on traditional diets rich in fish, are especially threatened - a threat documented by a recent study of the area by the US Environmental Protection Agency. This threat is partially behind legal action against the region's major copper smelter. Producer Dick Brooks has our second report from the southern shores of Lake Superior.

(Sound of marina)

BROOKS: The Red Cliff Ojibway Reservation is on the tip of northern Wisconsin that extends into Lake Superior. Tribal fishing boats are tied at the marina here. The Ojibway have treaty rights to fish and gather on Lake Superior and the inland waters of Wisconsin. It's been their way of life for centuries. But today there is a problem. Women of childbearing age are warned not to eat certain fish from the lake or from more than 100 other northern Wisconsin lakes. The fish are contaminated with mercury. Judy Pratt Shelly is a trained environmental specialist, and has studied the fish contamination for her tribe. She's also a mother of an infant son. She heeds the government's warnings not to eat the fish reluctantly.

SHELLY: The Ojibway here are fishing people, and the fish is a part of us just like we're a part of the earth. And if we can't continue fishing and eating the fish, then we're not the same people. Our cultural identity is missing, and part of us is missing, part of ourselves is gone.

BROOKS: Mercury can cause severe human health problems and child developmental disorders. The Ojibway are not the only ones affected. People in all of the communities around Lake Superior are increasingly reluctant to eat the walleye and lake trout they catch. No one knows for sure where the mercury here is coming from, but chances are a lot of it is from the Copper Range smelter, located about 60 miles east of Red Cliff on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Copper Range is the largest emitter of airborne heavy metals in the Lake Superior Basin - three times as big as the next largest source of mercury. The Copper Range smelter, at White Pine, Michigan, processes ore from as far away as Sweden and Indonesia. It's produced more than 3 billion pounds of copper since 1955. Just six miles from the shore of Lake Superior, the mining complex dominates a small river valley surrounded by the Porcupine Mountains. A huge smoke stack rises 500 feet from the valley floor. It spews ton after ton after ton of lead, arsenic, and mercury into the air. Some of these heavy metal toxins fall to the water and surrounding landscape of the Lake Superior Basin. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources tried for over a decade to get Copper Range to conduct emission tests on its stack. Finally, in 1990, the DNR did the test itself and found the smelter in violation of air-quality laws. They then spent two years trying to negotiate a settlement with Copper Range. After watching the negotiations drag on, the National Wildlife Federation, a citizens' group, sued Copper Range to force compliance with clean-air laws. Gail Coyer is the Federation's Lake Superior Project organizer.

COYER: We talked to the company and we said, we would really like to not move forward with this lawsuit, we'd like to talk to you about our concerns. And they said that they were not interested in talking to us about our alleged clean air violations. So then we moved forward to file our lawsuit.

BROOKS: Copper Range's intransigence was nothing new. Internal state documents show the company was aware of its emission violations as early as 1975. Other memos say Copper Range used political pressure to avoid testing and compliance with environmental laws throughout the '80's. The National Wildlife suit forced the State of Michigan's hand. To remain a part of the negotiations, Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelly intervened in the case. He admits the state had been slow to respond.

KELLY: There was pressure for me not to enter the case, because they felt that it might have an adverse impact on the economy if I were to come in and insist on full application of environmental laws, that the Copper Range company might make a decision to move - something they hinted at earlier in the litigation, when it was first started by the environmental groups.

BROOKS: Before long, the State of Wisconsin intervened as well, saying state interests in Lake Superior were threatened by Copper Range. In May 1993, the Federal EPA joined the case. EPA documents show that protecting Ojibway treaty rights to safe fish was a significant factor in their decision. It was the first time that so many governments at different levels had joined together to force a Lake Superior air polluter to obey the law. News of the legal action scared the Upper Peninsula community. Fewer than 10,000 people live in Ontonogon County, and Copper Range is the UP's largest private employer. The company has never said publicly that the lawsuits might shut down the plant . But it has done nothing to dispel that notion either. The few public comments by officials at the plant have been about "counterproductive" and "punishing" lawsuits and low copper prices. Otherwise, Copper Range has remained ominously silent. They refuse to talk to the media or the community. And the community has taken that silence to mean trouble.

(Sound of highway)

BROOKS: White Pine, Michigan is a company town. It was carved out of the North Woods in the '50's to support the mine. About a thousand people live here now, all of them tied to the mine in one way or another. And they're worried that environmentalists are trying to close the smelter.

BUSSIERE: There is a segment of our population that doesn't like to see any smoke coming out of smokestacks, doesn't like to see any thing, any water discharged into any stream. I feel those people are probably very excited and very happy that this is happening.

BROOKS: Dorothy Bussiere is Executive Secretary of the Ontonogon County Development Corporation. She says Copper Range spent more than $150 million dollars in the County over the past five years, and that more than 1500 jobs depend on it.

BUSSIERE: The people who work at the mine are very, very concerned and probably somewhat angry. This is their life.
BROOKS: Who are they mad at?
BUSSIERE: Maybe they're angry, somewhat at the company for having any violations that would have caused the people who filed the lawsuit to do so. And they're probably angry that some of the people that came in here and filed the lawsuit are not Ontonogon County people. Ontonogon County is a very close-knit county. They don't like people from outside of the area telling them how to run and live their lives.

BROOKS: Pollution controls will cost tens of millions of dollars, and potential fines could add millions more to the price of compliance. The public impression in the UP is one of tough times at Copper Range. But the reality may be somewhat different. Copper Range's majority owner is Metall Mining, a Toronto-based subsidiary of a huge German mining conglomerate. A phone call to Richard Ross, Metall's Vice President and treasurer, was promptly returned. He didn't want to go on tape, but he was very willing to discuss what local Copper Range officials wouldn't. Ross says Copper Range is making a good profit, despite low copper prices, and recently invested $50 million dollars to upgrade its mining equipment. Furthermore, Metall is studying a proposed $200 million dollar expansion at Copper Range that would double the smelter's capacity and, according to Ross, bring the smelter into compliance with all environmental laws. That, says Gail Coyer, is what the National Wildlife Federation is after. They don't want to shut down the company, she says - they want to stop the pollution.

COYER: It has nothing to do with being an outsider or living in the area. I live up in the basin too, and I feel very strongly, as a Lake Superior resident, that I have a privilege to live near the shores of the largest freshwater lake in the world. But I also have a responsibility to protect it, and I take that responsibility very seriously.

BROOKS: The case isn't scheduled to reach the courts until 1995, and the negotiations continue. The flurry of legal activity has caused the Ojibway to take a closer look at Copper Range. Tribal leaders have met with EPA officials. But so far they are reluctant to intervene. On the Red Cliff Reservation, Judy Pratt Shelly has hired a lawyer to look into bringing a personal case against Copper Range. As an Ojibway, she says her rights are being violated.

SHELLY: These are not just a treaty right, it's a spiritual right. It's a right that is not only being taken away from me but my children, my grandchildren, whatever future generations there may be. And it's not just me, it's other people that really have a right to a safe, clean environment that supports populations of food, that's safe to eat, and there's probably adverse effects on the fish populations themselves.

BROOKS: The government effort to resolve the pollution problems at Copper Range promises to be a true test of the Binational Program for Lake Superior. The outcome may chart the future for resolution of other pollution problems, and provide stronger protection for Lake Superior. For Living on Earth, I'm Dick Brooks.

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(Music up and under)

The Zen Of Hawkwatching

CURWOOD: As the fall winds bend trees of growing color here in the temperate latitudes, the great migrations begin. Commentator and Naturalist David Catlin has been out in the Missouri Ozarks with his binoculars, watching, and thinking.

CATLIN: I grew to love the September hawk migration back when I worked as a naturalist in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Every year broadwing hawks came swirling out of the north in the last two weeks of the month. They rode like surfers on the waves of incoming cold fronts, and if I had a good vantage point I could watch them stream by for hours. Then I moved to Springfield, Missouri, and took a job running a nature center. I knew that the hawk migration actually occurs all over the country, so as part of the center's educational efforts, I organized some hawk-watching vigils here in the Ozarks. I would drive out to a nearby state forest, climb to the top of an old fire tower, sit down with my binoculars, and wait for eager hawk watchers to arrive. This proved to be pretty marginally successful as public programming. Even when we advertised that I would be providing free lemonade, people just didn't come. All I can figure is that they'd heard how unreliable the birds were. In the Blue Ridge, hawks are fairly predictable. Around here it's a lottery. Last year a couple down in Taney County counted 3700 broadwings in an hour and a half. But more often the hawk watching is pretty slow. I don't think I spent a day on that fire tower when I saw more than 20 birds. But I had a wonderful time. I listened to the jays squabble in the trees below me. I watched monarch butterflies drift past on their way to Mexico. I drank a lot of that cool lemonade. And I meditated. One realization I had was that there's a whole generation spoiled by the spectacle of the Discovery Channel that is missing out on the joys of just sitting. We stopped offering hawk-watching as a program because I'm a government employee and we couldn't justify my meditations to the taxpayers. Still, I always urge people to appreciate the migration on their own. Just about anywhere in the country, the hawk-watching is best when the sun shines and the wind blows puffy clouds in from the northwest, and the sitting is good any time.

CURWOOD: Commentator David Catlin is the manager of the Springfield Conservation Nature Center, in Springfield, Missouri. He comes to us from member station KSMU.

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(Music up and under)

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Deborah Stavro directs our program. Our producer and editor is Peter Thomson, and the coordinating producer is George Homsy. Our production team includes Kim Motylewski, Lucia Small, Jessika Bella Mura, Andrea Cassola, Chris Page, and Colleen Singer Coxe. The studio engineer is Laurie Azaria, with help this week from Monica Spain and Rita Sand. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon. Special thanks this week to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the Superior Radio Network. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

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The preceding text has been professionally transcribed. However, although the text has been checked against an audio track, in order to meet rigid distribution and transmission deadlines, it has not yet been proofread against tape.


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